Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Melancholy Skies

March 5, 2018 § Leave a comment

How Nuri Bilge Ceylan really likes clouds.

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Sympathy for The Creature (from the Black Lagoon)

March 5, 2018 § Leave a comment

From the early 1920s to the late 1950s, Universal Studios unspooled a steady string of horror films and, in the process, created several iconic ‘monsters’ forever fated to be Halloween fodder if not the stuff of nightmares. One of these Universal creations is — well — the Creature, aka Gill-man, featured in Jack Arnold’s films Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and Revenge of the Creature (1955).

Perhaps most notable for its dreamily photographed underwater sequences and tactile monster design, Creature from the Black Lagoon is, at its best, a suspenseful matinee-style adventure that pitches a group of scientists against what could be described as the ‘Amazonian Bigfoot’, an amphibious humanoid relic that has somehow circumvented evolution. But, at the risk of being a yawning millennial unmoved by ‘tame’ classic horror, I will proffer that Creature from the Black Lagoon is more unsettling than terrifying, but that the feeling of unease lingers long past the film’s end credits, and for reasons that go beyond Gill-man’s frightful exterior.

What is it about the Creature that renders his status as a monster somewhat more complex than those which simply trade in shocks and one-note belligerence? In this video, I briefly explore the idea that grudging sympathycombined with revulsion can have an unlikely but striking effect. In a way, the Creature from the Black Lagoon has a lot in common with another great Universal ghoul: Boris Karloff’s Monster from Frankenstein (1931).

* originally published on Fandor Keyframe in 2016

Edward Snowden’s Movie Mentors

March 5, 2018 § Leave a comment

The idea of a lone individual confronting a hostile and powerful institution positively drips with dramatic potential. It’s no wonder that cinema and its makers have been long attracted to these kinds of characters, if the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Heroes & Villains list is in any way representative, at least with regards to American cinema. Now, place this lone, dissenting individual within and around the institution that they choose to confront and the drama positively ignites, fuelled by gallons of guilt and betrayal and inner turmoil. It’s the kind of combination that has drawn award-winning performances from the likes of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Julia Roberts and Rachel Weisz, all four playing whistleblowers of varying shades, some real, some fictional.

Well, this fall, under the direction of biopic enthusiast Oliver Stone, Joseph Gordon-Levitt will himself join the modest but rousing ‘whistleblower canon’ as he plays former CIA analyst Edward Snowden, currently in exile in Russia for leaking classified NSA documents in 2013. It’s worth noting that, in Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour (2014), Edward Snowden repeatedly expresses his fervent hope that the content of his disclosures will not play second fiddle to the story of his person. Needless to say, Snowden‘s wishes will be tossed a little to the side when Stone’s Snowden opens in mid-September. Yet, naïve as his desire for relative anonymity may seem, I suspect that Mr Snowden appreciates – deep down – that there is no revelation, no matter how important, that will completely eclipse mass curiosity regarding the events and experiences that led to his earth-rattling decision to…reveal.

Moreover, I find it hard to imagine that a clued-in, sociopolitically conscious American male in his late twenties (at the time of the leaks) had never seen or heard of The InsiderSerpico or All The President’s Men, or at the very least the actual individuals and events on which those films are based. Is it not entirely possible that scenes, quotes and images from these and other films passed through his mind as he contemplated his future actions and their potential repercussions? This video is a brief imagining of this process, as Edward Snowden, holed-up in a Hong Kong hotel room prepares himself for The Passion of the Whistleblower/Watchdog/Traitor/Patriot, with a little help from some films.

* originally published in Fandor Keyframe in 2016

Sexual Transgressions of Carlos Reygadas

March 5, 2018 § Leave a comment

Two feature films into his still relatively young career, Mexican writer-director Carlos Reygadas had already developed a reputation as a provocateur, particularly following the hostile Cannes reception of his drolly scathing sophomore effort Battle in Heaven (2005). With his debut, Japón (2002), Reygadas displayed a tendency to  punctuate weirdly nauseating narratives of painful self-reckoning with moments that approach the sublime, the transcendent. But he also betrayed an impish desire to wheedle his way under the viewer’s skin with blanched and turbid cinematography, unglamorous sexuality and violence against animals. So when Battle in Heaven landed on the Cannes Croisette, opening with the image of a young woman explicitly fellating an older man in what appears to be a nondescript grey chamber, Reygadas’ status as Mexican cinema’s enfant terrible was confirmed, with words like ‘graphic’ and ‘transgressive’ becoming frequent descriptors of his output.

Oddly enough, Reygadas’ rise to international prominence in the early 2000s occurred around the same time that a cohort of filmmakers, from Catherine Breillat to Michael Winterbottom, were making serious attempts at exploring the extent to which uncensored, often unsimulated sex could be legitimised in non-pornographic films, from the blush-worthy moments of carnal vulnerability in Patrice Chereau’s Intimacy (2001) to the gaudy intravaginal coital shots from Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void (2009). And while the aforementioned example from Battle of Heaven may proudly sit with such rebellious and irreverent company, it (and the final scene from the same film) remain striking anomalies in the Reygadas filmography: the only instances of explicit penetration, whether achieved with flesh of prosthetics. Yet, the image of Reygadas as a ‘transgressive’ filmmaker remains despite the relative brevity and overall coyness of the sex scenes in his films, all four of which indeed contain sexual content.

It may simply be that Reygadas’ subtly pugnacious formal choices have earned him the title of ‘transgressor.’ Or perhaps it’s the quietly damning depictions of class and gender dynamics in contemporary Mexico, or the disconcerting emotional texture of his films — the sense that his characters exist in a dead zone between obligatory religious morality and austere amorality. While all these are true to some extent, the perceptions that Reygadas’ use of sex is not only ‘graphic’ but ‘transgressive’ remains a curious one. Is this filmmaker skirting the boundaries of sexual explicitness in a manner akin to some of his peers, or are his sights set on different boundaries, with a view to pushing a different set of buttons? In this video, I explore this question.

* originally published on Fandor Keyframe in 2016

Rohmer at the Water

March 5, 2018 § Leave a comment

From the sun-dappled Seine on whose banks Parisians wistfully lounge in Le Signe du Lion (1959), to the idyllic locations along Brittany’s Côte d’Émeraude that become a romantic battleground for the character of Gaspard in A Summer’s Tale (1996), one thing has always struck me about a great many of Eric Rohmer’s films. In addition to a notable focus on the ‘leisure classes’ and their various pastimes, Rohmer’s pictures frequently feature bodies of water, from bustling beaches to tranquil ponds. Of course, these two elements – whether or not they play a part in defining Rohmer’s cinema – are somewhat inseparable. The storylines of many of his more renowned films (Claire’s Knee, Pauline at the Beach, The Green Ray, the aforementioned A Summer’s Tale) unfold over the course of an extended vacation (usually at a coastal locale), during which characters have ample time to indulge in romantic parlour games and sunny afternoon philosophising. That a portion of their time is spent tanning, swimming and boating is only natural as is, accordingly, the presence of wet expanses. But suppose this affinity for water is more than a mere consequence of setting or just some auteurist quirk, instead being of deeper thematic significance. If so, why water?

Consider, first, the traits and qualities of the classic Rohmer character: young(ish), educated or – at the very least – articulate, primed for love and hungry for sex, and often torn between the whims of the heart and the fretful inklings of the mind. Even those that seem utterly self-assured and crystalline in their desires tend to expound on these things almost too emphatically, as though they are trying to convince themselves of these very things. In essence, there often seems to be a modest Mexican standoff between thinking, feeling and being. Either that or the characters are completely at the mercy of neuroticism and overthought, like Delphine in The Green Ray (1986) or Blanche in Boyfriends and Girlfriends (1987). It’s no surprise, then, that Delphine’s gloomier seaside detours during the first half of the film come across as weirdly antagonistic, the crowded beach and its boisterous, crashing waters taunting the lonely protagonist and daring her to enjoy herself, to feel comfortable in her skin. By contrast, water seems to represent release and acceptance for Blanche as she windsurfs with a potential new love, or at least with a newfound sense of worth.

Now, consider the nature of water: loose, volatile, violent when given the chance, yet respectful of the physical laws and forces that shape and guide it. There is a formidability to the ocean that is humbling, and a quiet self-confidence to even the smallest puddle that is equally humbling. If water represents the ability to simply be, then it is perhaps a model of the psychological ideal that Rohmer’s characters, in one way or another, aspire to – that of intrinsic harmony. As much as the water is a source of cool, buoyant recreation, when Rohmer’s characters stroll, jog or run into the sea, or sit down beside a lake, there is a sense of it being a source of fascination and an inspiration, as much as it is a playground. Then there is the fundamental mystery of water. To cast one’s eyes across the sea, to the horizon, is to be faced with the seemingly unknown, and the more Rohmer’s characters talk and theorise and pontificate and self-exorcise the more his films feel like talky tributes to the mysteries of humanity, a species capable of rationality but helplessly given to fickleness; contradictory yet predictable all the same.

But let us not forget the visual simplicity and elegance of water. There are shots in Rohmer’s films in which a body of water seems like the most fitting prop or set, whether as a flat and stagnant backdrop to a prickly conversation between will-be/won’t-be lovers, or a serene seascape against which a character finally achieves some semblance of happiness and peace. Or, as an astute colleague of mine pointed out to me, water – especially at the border between land and sea – sometimes seems representative of a character’s stagnation and arrested development, or their inability to move beyond certain psycho-emotional limits; ‘landlocked’ is the word he used, particularly in reference to Gaspard from A Summer’s Tale and Delphine.

As a literary and artistic device, water can comfortably humour endless interpretations. Knowing Rohmer’s background as a critic and an academic, I imagine there are sprinkles of more rigorous Classical water references present in his films to offset my speculative, fanciful readings. But the aim of this video is not to make an argument in favour of any, but to highlight this ‘visual motif,’ if you will, to take pleasure in it, and to perhaps trigger some thoughts and discourse on the matter. So I present, to you, a trip to the water and back, a la Eric Rohmer.

* originally published on Fandor Keyframe in 2016

Strange Adventures in Film Language

March 5, 2018 § Leave a comment

It’s intoxicating, the notion that the language of pictures can and does transcend a many-tongued world rife with non-communication, miscommunication and misinterpretation; our globalised Babel. In many ways it’s an ideal that remains robust and exciting, to think that a viewer in one hemisphere (geographically, culturally, economically) could see something of themselves reflected in the face, the gestures and the actions of a fellow human being in a far-flung place. But movies have long been a beautifully variegated beast, a stew of myriad formal elements of which the spoken word has become a major one. And for a monolinguist exploring “world cinema”/“the world of cinema”/“the world through cinema”, verbal language truly adds a layer of complexity and ambiguity to the process of watching movies, sometime acting as a jarring reminder that understanding and empathy are perhaps only ever partial. There is, of course, the perennial anxiety about subtitles subtly detracting from the full visual experience of a film, however speedy the eyes and the mind are at darting and reading and comprehending. This may naturally lead one into the increasingly unfashionable territory of dubbing, unfashionable in the sense that fewer and fewer contemporary releases seem to feature such tracks, perhaps due to issues of performance preservation and cost effectiveness, or just plain old taste. Whatever one’s feelings about subtitles and dubs, the various practices of translating the spoken components of cinema raises some arresting questions regarding the reliability of communication, issues of cultural appropriation and misrepresentation, and the ever dicey matter of artistic integrity. For better or worse, the ‘language of cinema’ means far more than the syntax of images.

* originally published on Fandor Keyframe in 2016

The Vitality of Vitti

March 5, 2018 § Leave a comment

Correction: as mentioned in the following paragraph, Monica Vitti made five (not four) films with Michelangelo Antonioni

It’s not entirely surprising that Francois Truffaut found the films of Michelangelo Antonioni to be ‘humorless,’ and that Ingmar Bergman’s impression of his Italian contemporary was that he could have been a cinematic great in the ranks of Kurosawa and Tarkovsky had he not been ‘suffocated by his own tediousness.’ Personally, I would contend that Antonioni’s impact on cinematic expression remains singular enough to warrant his being mentioned in the same breath as such esteemed company. But to be fair and frank, encountering – for the first time – the cinema of Michelangelo Antonioni proved revelatory precisely because it seemed so shamelessly ‘humourless’ and ‘tedious’.

These were the most most melancholic films I had ever seen, ‘these’ being Antonioni’s 1960s quintet of sorts: L’avventura (1960), La notte (1961), L’eclisse (1962), Red Desert (1964) and Blow-Up (1966). Whether or not the director pitied or lionized his sad sack characters, his approach to composition, pacing and performance exhibited a refreshing patience (bordering on fondness) for the state of being lost, of not knowing what it is you feel you should know; for the act of brooding. The films almost seemed to give one the license to be miserable without having to feel guilty for lacking psychic resolve. And it so happened that four of the five featured the sultrily despondent pout of a theater actress/silver screen novice named Monica Vitti as she and various other sharply-attired semi-socialites wandered the desolate landscapes of post-war Italy and of their own souls; ambling through spaces that were expressions of existentially fraught interiors by way of being austerely stylized exteriors.

More than any other performer in Antonioni’s films from this period (and not simply due the frequency of her being cast), Vitti – with her open face and her weighted gait – seemed to embody and exemplify Andrew Sarris’s fairly self-explanatory neologism ‘Antoniennui’. Yet, on revisiting four of the five total Vitti/Antonioni collaborations (the final being The Mystery of Oberwald, 1981), I gradually came to notice and appreciate the spectrum of humanity and emotion on display, even if said spectrum ultimately skews towards the negative. For all the sullen gazes and silent sighs, there are notable moments of levity, even joy, and many if not most (if not all) featuring Monica Vitti in some capacity. But rather than undercutting Antonioni’s exploration of modern psychic illness, such instances of positivity and playfulness establish his characters as being more than mere personifications of theme. And if this is not entirely true for all Antonioni’s characters, Vitti’s are, at the very least, roundedly human, and this lends their psychological plights a measure of relatability.

As much as this video is a tribute to the beauty and on-screen magnetism of Vitti, my secret intention is that it should function as a fleeting reminder not only of Vitti’s range and ease as a performer, but that it will be an invitation to reconsider Antonioni’s image as a peddler of misery.

* originally published on Fandor Keyframe in 2016

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